The Centre Ground is Torn Apart – but Moderates Time Will Come Again

Politics is very fluid, it is ever changing, and it must, as it must ebb and flow along with the public opinion and the Overton window. Traditionally, elections are won in the centre ground, as the party that appeal best to them traditionally gain their majorities. There is a big difference between centrism and the centre ground; both Labour and the Tories have never really been centrist parties, but have both managed to take the centre ground for themselves over the years. There is only one ‘centrist party’ in the UK, and they have only ever been the small party in a coalition.

The spectrum and makeup of UK politics are ever-changing, but arguably over the past 2 years, it has shifted more radically than ever before. The Tories have taken a lurch to the right through Brexit, and since Corbyn’s leadership election victory Labour has moved to the left wing, although their manifesto will have told you another story. The Liberal Democrats have been demolished, and both Labour/Tory moderates find themselves on the fringes of the parties they once commanded. Traditionally, the UK has never strayed too far from the centre ground, but due to the radical paths both main parties are treading, the public is finding itself being pulled in different directions.

Therefore, the UK currently finds itself more divided than ever. The greatest divide right now is between Remainers and Leavers, even within each single party, as the Tories feud on Europe never seems to cease. Through the 2017 election we also now see big divides in age, social class, education levels, towns and cities, globalisation, and liberalism, as one side plucks for May’s Tories, and the other Corbyn’s Labour. Public opinion is shifting at a greater speed than ever before, but it is not simply lurching one way. As the latest BSA findings highlight, on some areas Britain’s opinions are moving to the left, and on others, to the right.

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The Fight for Credibility

Politics these days is far cry from its predecessors. It’s manic, very much in real time, and lacks credibility. For us pragmatic, democratic, centre left or centrist voters, we yearn for the days of strong leaders, real news, and credibility in spades. This week, Theresa May and her minority government lacking any mandate put forward their pledges in the Queens Speech, a thin one at that, and it lacked substance, and a lot of promises from the manifesto released just last month.

The Queens Speech effectively saw the end to the grammar schools debate, the fox hunting farce, the school meals slip up, and showed no clarity on the government’s plan for Brexit. Theresa May is a dead PM walking, simply keeping the seat warm for one of her fellow cabinet members in the next 12-24 months. On the other side of the commons Jeremy Corbyn kept up his momentum from the election by ripping into May’s motley gang, and propelling Labour into slender poll leads this week. This was one of the shortest Queen’s Speeches of all time, and showed the fragility of the Tories position, and the lack of credible leadership they command right now.

Things are not going to get any easier for the government either. They are yet to strike a deal with the DUP, a deal which will further toxify their brand, and this week also saw the beginning of Brexit negotiations, something Labour can exploit. Davies vs Barnier is a David v Goliath situation, if David has his hands tied behind his back, and the lack of brain cells to throw a stone. It’s clear the Tories will cave throughout the talks, and the EU will be free to make a clear example of us. We look set to leave the single market and the customs union, and Labour should be forcing their way through this open goal.

For the first time this week, polls show Britons don’t want a no deal situation, prefer single market access to immigration controls, and even maybe slightly regret their decisions. Labour must capitalise on this, which is what makes McDonnell’s comments so worrying. McDonnell pledged last week to leave the single market, something which will not please many of Labour’s voters who voted this way for a soft Brexit, and who could very easily slip back over to the Liberal Democrats.

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Time to Think the Unthinkable?

We are now less than a week away from heading to the polling booths, and suddenly, we seem to have an actual contest on our hands. Over the past month, the Tories lead has collapsed. Their average polling lead has fallen from 16% in early April, to just 5.3% now, and YouGov has even gone as far to predict a possible hung parliament at this stage. Britain Elects, who use the polls of polls average, have the Tories increasing their majority to roughly 70, but this is still a long way off the 150+ majority we looked to be heading towards just a few weeks ago. The question many are asking, could Corbyn do it?

One of the main reasons for the turn in fortunes has been both parties’ campaign performances, which like the poll turn, looked highly unlikely a few weeks ago. It’s clear that May’s campaign has damaged her reputation among the public, and the Conservative’s campaign has been to put it frank, shocking. From the lack of costings in the published manifesto, to the dreaded ‘Dementia Tax’, and the refusal to turn up at the recent live television debates, May’s impregnable brand has taken a big hit. For the first time since she took office, more Britons are dissatisfied (50%) than satisfied with her performance as PM (43%), although she does still hold a sizable lead in popularity over Corbyn.

On the other hand, Corbyn’s popularity is on the rise. Last month roughly 15% thought he’d make a better PM than May, this has grown to roughly 35% now. Whether it’s a heck of a lot of media training, unity across the Labour Party, or a willingness to adapt, it has brought improvements. Corbyn and Labour have had a positive campaign so far, although they have been given a helping hand by May and the Tories. Corbyn has shown in the past that it’s within election campaigns he seems to shine brightest, and his performances in debates has shown huge advances.

Another positive for Labour has been their manifesto. As I stated previously here, Labour’s manifesto policies have received widespread support from the public. 58% support re-nationalising the railways, water companies, and other utilities, 61% support the increase in minimum wage, 52% support increasing the top rate of tax, 64% back abolishing zero-hour contracts, 53% want universal free school meals for primary school students, and 59% back better rent control. But the truth of the matter is, we’ve seen this all before. We’ve seen much of these election signs before.

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Incompetence, or Confidence?

Although Labour’s draft manifesto was leaked somewhat early, this week was ‘Manifesto Week’, where the main parties outlined their plans, pledges, and policies for government. The Conservatives launched theirs in Halifax on Thursday, under the banner ‘Forward, Together’, representing the steps the UK takes forward as we leave the European Union in 2019. However, you only have to flip over to page 2 to see the true meaning and message of their election campaign: ‘Theresa May’s Team’. This has been a campaign built on the idea of her against Corbyn, rather than the Tories against the Labour Party.

The Manifesto certainly matched the conservatism brand of politics, but in terms of what the Conservatives stand for, and their audience, it can be argued there’s definite change. So, what were the key pledges? Those with assets over 100k will now have to pay for care out of the value of their house, immigration will be reduced to the tens of thousands, companies will be charged to employ skilled workers from outside the EU, the pension triple-lock will be scrapped, Britain will leave the single market, grammar schools reintroduced, increased funding for education and health, and corporation tax lowered.

Once again, the date to end the budget deficit has been pushed back. In 2010, we were told a surplus by 2014. By 2014, it was 2017. And now, it’s the middle of the next decade. This isn’t the only policy or pledge rehashed or pushed back. The 2015 manifesto said, “Yes to the single market”, and the 2017 manifesto says the opposite. The 2015 manifesto wanted to ‘eliminate’ child poverty, and the 2017 edition wants to ‘reduce levels’. This wasn’t on a manifesto, rather a bus, but there’s no sign of the extra £350 million a week for the NHS; just like Boris, it’s message carrier.

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Labour must move towards the centre, and the issues that matter

As we all know, Labour’s situation is dire. We trail the Conservatives on average by 17 points in the polls, Corbyn trails May by 40%, and the electorate trust the Tories over us in key areas such as health and the economy. We are roughly 20-25 net points behind our position at this point in the last parliament, and are heading for electoral wipeout in 2020. Most of us hope and pray for the resignation and removal of Corbyn as leader, but this seems a distant dream; so we must work with what we have, and to an extent lessen the damage.

Despite the fact we have a party leader who is hugely unpopular, we have also been let down by the leaderships attitude towards engagement and the media, and their unwillingness to communicate. The last 2-3 weeks have shown a slight improvement in policy and spin, but more must be done if Labour is to stand a chance. We, as a party, are not offering hope or security to voters up and down the country, and this simply, will be election disaster.

It’s important for the left, and for Labour to focus on the issues that matter to ordinary, every-day voters. Too often the left gets distracted by abstract notions, and focus on subjects and policy that simply do not matter to swing voters when they reach the ballot. The current leadership, and the membership, need to realise that hard-left views will never win an election. Labour needs to move into the centre-left, and talk the language of those who we need to vote for us in 2020. Corbyn supporters talk of concentrating on enthusing non-voters, but this is folly. The central ground is where elections are won, and lost.

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Ed Balls – Speaking Out Review

Arguably the most anticipated political memoirs of 2016 was from Ed Balls; the ex-Shadow Chancellor, shadow cabinet minister, Treasury adviser, and all-round extraordinary dancer. As the blurb highlights, on the 7th May 2015, Ed was one day away from possibly becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, but instead he woke up the next day without a job. Ed’s book looks at the highs and low of his life and career so far, from his early days being right hand man in the Treasury to Gordon Brown, all the way to his appearance on Celebrity Great British Bake Off.

There were so many reasons I was hyped for this book. Firstly, I’m a big fan of the man himself. Ed is a great character, a bright mind, and a big inspiration for me in both politics, and the Labour Party. Another draw was my keen interest in politics, and the stories behind the scenes. There’s been many a time that I’ve thought of entering politics over the past few years, being able to help those up and down the country who need it, and this book could offer a great insight into the front line. And finally, arguably the biggest reason of them all, the Gordon Brown anecdotes.

Balls’s autobiography looks over his life in an unconventional format. Rather than following the events of his life chronologically, each chapter focuses on one lesson or subject, and Balls reflects on how this subject has touched his life in politics. Some of the subjects are quite personal, deep, and moving; for example, the chapters that focus on vulnerability, mistakes, and purpose. Other chapters such as markets, spin, images, and opposition are much more applicable to his life, and offer the key insight and knowledge into the workings of parliament.

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What Labour must now do

This week’s vote on the second reading of the Article 50 bill shows that Brexit is happening, whether we like it or not. This decision will be terrible for the UK in so many ways, and this Tory government led by Theresa May will be the ones responsible. The government have been there for the taking since the 2015 election; the chaotic budget, the Panama papers, the referendum result, and each time Labour has failed to capitalise and take the initiative.

This government will continue to be there for the taking in the years to come. Brexit (at least in the short term), will not be pretty. It will be chaotic, and will ultimately leave us worse off in terms of trade, the economy, security, power, and so many other aspects of our lives. A decent opposition, led by a capable, electable leader should wipe the floor with this government and easily gain a majority in the next election, but alas, that is not Labour right now.

The main reason of course, as I have posted about time and time again, is that we have an incompetent leader, who the public simply do not like, or trust. In a toss-up with Theresa May only 15% think he would make a better PM, just 13% believe he is a strong leader, and a measly 15% trust Corbyn and McDonnell with the economy over May and Hammond. To top it all off, even though the public trust Labour more than the Tories with the NHS, add Corbyn and May’s names into the question, and suddenly the public trust the Tories more. It’s no coincidence.

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